With only 2 minutes and 21 seconds left in Super Bowl LII, New England quarterback Tom Brady found himself in yet another spot where heroes are made.
Brady, the reigning MVP, and the defending champion Patriots had been unstoppable all day — they ended up setting multiple Super Bowl records offensively — but they also trailed the Philadelphia Eagles by five points. They needed to score a touchdown, and they had to go 75 yards to do it.
For Brady, a five-time Super Bowl champion who has led 11 fourth-quarter scoring drives in the postseason throughout his career, it was simply an opportunity to fortify his greatness.
And while Brady indeed did so on a night in which he set eight Super Bowl records, it was the solidification of the greatness of others — like defensive end Brandon Graham, quarterback Nick Foles and head coach Doug Pederson — that left a more resounding imprint in the Eagles’ 41-33 victory Sunday in front of a largely pro-Philadelphia crowd of 67,612 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Start wth Graham, an eight-year pro who has been one of the league’s best pass rushers for years but has never been to the Pro Bowl and only been chosen All-Pro once. Yet, with one play, he etched himself into Super Bowl lore.
With Brady dropping back on second and 2 before the 2-minute warning, Graham beat his man, swooped in with his left hand and strip-sacked Brady for a fumble that was recovered by the Eagles.
“Tom Brady’s arm was right there,” Graham said, “and I went for the ball.”
It was Philadelphia’s first sack of the day, and New England’s first turnover. But after a 46-yard Jake Elliott field goal stretched Philadelphia’s lead to eight, and the Eagles’ defense — which had been toothless all night — snuffed another Brady drive with less than a minute left, it still loomed large as the play of the day in a game that clinched the Eagles’ first Super Bowl title.
But it always takes a team to topple a dynasty, and ironically enough, a pair of former Chiefs were featured in starring roles Sunday, as Pederson and Foles — a pending free agent who was voted Super Bowl MVP — played huge parts in the win.
“I am speechless,” Foles said.
In the case of Peterson, who spent 2013 to 2015 as Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City, his aggressive nature paid off big all night long. His decisions to go for it twice on fourth down led to sorely-needed touchdowns on a night in which the Patriots racked up a Super Bowl-record 613 total yards.
“We’ve been aggressive all year,” Pederson said, “and we stayed aggressive.”
As for Foles — who was a backup a year ago with the Chiefs and only two months ago with the Eagles, prior to the season-ending injury to MVP-candidate Carson Wentz — he managed to do something only a handful of quarterbacks have done in the playoffs; go toe-to-toe with a legend like Brady on football’s biggest stage and win.
While Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns, Foles, who was unceremoniously released by a bad Rams team in the summer of 2016 before he spent a reclamation year in Kansas City, was outstanding as well, completing 28 of 43 passes for 373 yards, three touchdowns, an interception and a touchdown reception.
“He’s amazing,” said tight end Zach Ertz, who caught seven passes for 67 yards and a score. “The past three weeks, he’s been playing out of his mind. People panicked when Carson went down. Nick, we had all the confidence in the world in him.”
Appropriately enough, both Foles’ and Pederson’s actions coalesced on the Eagles’ biggest offensive drive of the game, which came midway through the fourth quarter. The Patriots had just taken their first lead of the game, overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit, and Pederson’s Eagles — who trailed the Patriots by one point and had the ball on their own 45-yard line with about 5 minutes left — could punt the ball.
There was more than enough time to force a punt and get another score, and perhaps a more conservative coach would have taken that option. But Pederson has never been one for caution, and given the way his defense had been gashed all night by the Patriots, his decision was easy. He went for it.
And once Ertz hauled in the 2-yard pass for a first down, the Eagles-heavy crowd went wild as their team proceeded to finish off a game-winning drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Ertz from Foles that helped deliver the city of Philadelphia its first NFL championship since 1960.
“I knew that we were going to have to score a touchdown in that situation,” Pederson said. “A field goal wasn’t going to be good enough, not against Brady and the Patriots.”
And by the end of this instant classic, the two teams had combined for a Super Bowl-record 1,151 yards and also set records for most combined passing yards (874) and passing first downs (42).
But you wouldn’t have guessed this offensive outburst early on, particularly from the Patriots’ side of the ledger, as New England was plagued by miscues in the first half.
In fact, during one 4-minute stretch, the Patriots saw star receiver Brandin Cooks leave the game for good because of a head injury, Brady dropped an end-around pass that could have led to points and Philadelphia running back LeGarrette Blount — a Patriot last year — rumbled 21 yards for a touchdown that put Philadelphia ahead 15-3 midway through the second quarter.
But the Patriots, as champions often do, responded. A field goal cut the deficit to nine, and a Duron Harmon interception led to a hard-charging 26-yard touchdown run by James White that cut the deficit to three shortly before halftime.
While most coaches might have been happy to take a 15-12 lead into the break against the defending champs, Pederson — who became a Super Bowl champion in his second season in Philadelphia, the place his mentor, Reid, spent 14 years as a head coach — wasn’t.
After three unfruitful goal-line plays led to fourth and goal inside the 10-yard line, Pederson dialed up a red-zone trick play — a Reid specialty — via an end-around pass called “Philly Special” from tight end Trey Burton to Foles that gave the Eagles a 22-12 halftime advantage.
“I’ll tell you what, for a coach to call that play in that situation — are you kidding me?” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “That’s just the aggressive play caller he is. Couldn’t have come at a better time.”
But the Patriots, being the Patriots, wouldn’t stay down. Brady sandwiched a third-quarter Eagles touchdown drive with a pair of his own and cut the deficit to 29-26 entering the fourth quarter.
And when the Eagles could only muster a field goal on their next drive — stretching their lead to 32-26 — you almost knew that might come back to bite them, considering the two sides had already combined for 962 yards, surpassing the previous Super Bowl record of 929 set by Washington and Denver in 1987.
Throw in the fact the Patriots had outscored their last two Super Bowl opponents — Seattle and Atlanta — 34-0 in the fourth quarter of their games, and it was clear the lead was perilous.
It came to be only 10 plays later, when Brady capped another scoring drive with a touchdown pass to tight Rob Gronkowski that put the Patriots ahead 33-32, their first lead of the game.
But these Eagles had no shortage of grit. And thanks to another gutsy fourth-down call by their coach, big-time performances by Foles and Ertz, and two final defensive stands highlighted by Graham’s big play, by the end of the night, the Eagles had not only adequately weighed themselves against greatness, but also found themselves worthy.
“It does (stink),” Brady said of the loss, which drops him to 5-3 in the Super Bowl. “It (stinks).”
Not for the Eagles, who were underdogs in all three of their games this postseason.
“We have been wanting this for a long time,” Foles said. “And I am just blessed to be a part of it.”